Zambia’s South Luangwa is well renowned for being one of the most untamed areas on the African continent. This vastly wild part of Zambia is sized at an enormous 3,490 sq mi, and with the Luangwa River as its lifeblood, oxbow lagoons act as its capillaries, creating a vividly dramatic landscape.
From my vantage point seated next to Captain Lasford in the Cessna 206, I spot crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverbanks and hippos lying out in the open, their pink skins looking like they need a dash of sunscreen. Flying in to camp truly is the best way to witness the panorama unfurling in front of me, appreciating the magnitude that is South Luangwa National Park.
In the southernmost reaches of the park, two magnificently chic camps opened their doors in May 2022. Sungani, the masterfully elegant camp, and Kulandila, a camp with a more authentic safari feel. Originally from Zimbabwe, the lodges are owned and run by the charming Davy family, creating a true sense of being at home. “For me, I feel like it’s my own house,” Director Lynne Davy tells me over High Tea at Sungani. “I’m forever moving things around and the guys all know, she’s been on the deck – this is not where this piece of furniture was earlier. You know that feeling when you go to visit someone and you can instantly tell that you can put your feet up, and they’re not going to get mad with you, that’s what I needed. If this is how guests feel at Sungani, then it makes me so incredibly happy.”
Comfort is key for both Lynne and her husband Paul, who have had their fair share of staying in different safari lodges. “When I’m in the bush,” Lynne continues, “my room has to have a bit more space in the mosquito net; I dislike that horrible feeling of it crowding you, hence our nets are draped on the outside of the bedposts, quite a nice distance away from the bed. The sheets are super important too; anything that doesn’t feel crisp and clean does not belong in our lodge.”
Natural textures have been incorporated throughout the lodge, with interior influences by Lynne and her daughter Jordan. “I remember when Mom and I were thinking about the design,” Jordan tells me as she cuts a piece of the delicious chocolate cake made by chef Quinton and his team, “we stood on what is now polished concrete, drawing with a piece of charcoal from the fire where we thought different pieces of furniture should go. We really wanted it nice and open plan, with lots of natural tones and textures, but still comfortable, luxurious and at the end of the day, we wanted it to feel safari.”
Choosing a site to build a safari lodge on came with its own set of challenges, especially on a destination as remote as South Luangwa. For Lynne and Paul, the most vital factor was that they have to live and work on-site, as well as employ staff from the local community, and starting from scratch, they really didn’t know what they were in for. “We have the most amazing people working for us,” says Lynne. “Lodge manager Cindy and Chef Quinton are like our adopted children. Then we have John, Noah, and Vincent here (she points to the smiling faces behind the coffee counter) and the housekeeping staff, Isaac and Patrick. Our entire staff, from the groundsmen to the pool maintenance team and everyone in-between has been super important since day one. We would not be here today if it wasn’t for their selflessness and hard work.”
Chatting to son Michael over lunch, initial assessments from industry people were riddled with summations of “crazy”, “too wild”, “too challenging”, and downright “insane”. The family’s longstanding history in the safari business ensures that they are not ones to shy away from a challenge – the bigger the challenge the sweeter the reward. It took them a full day to get here, only to find a derelict site that had been standing vacant for more than a decade. “When we first set eyes on this piece of land, overlooking what is now known as the Sungani Lagoon, we immediately knew the doomsayers could do nothing to deter us – we felt the magic.”
In April 2019, constructing Sungani started in all earnest once permissions were granted to start building. One of the biggest jobs would be to create roads to the property as there were only two game loops. “We were about three months in with the project when my Dad said to me: ‘Michael, I think we made a mistake”, Michael tells me. “To which I replied, ‘No Dad, this is South Luangwa, we’ll be fine, we’ve got to push through.’ “We went out the next day and we saw a herd of elephants and a herd of buffalo. Those were the two most important herds of animals we saw because, at that moment, everything changed. They were here; we just had to give them time to adapt to us being here.”
I am able to witness firsthand the difference in wildlife behavior when out on a game drive with guide Brian; the impalas pause for a moment before pronking away, the pukus stand still long enough to be photographed and the endemic Thornicroft’s giraffe becomes a roadblock. We even see a leopard one evening, digging under a tree! And the first-ever sighting for me, two porcupines on the night drive. As Michael so aptly put it – nature is so remarkable and given the chance to recover, it looks after itself.
Staying at Sungani, the view from my guest tent (think glamping with all the bells and whistles) is interactive, almost like a movie playing out starring different characters. Sitting in my comfortable rattan chair on my private deck with my favorite morning beverage, a perfectly crafted cappuccino by Cindy, I watch the hippos in the Sungani lagoon, feasting on the Nile cabbage they clearly seem to enjoy. When morning breaks, it’s like a rouge-filled painting filled with live, serenading birdsong. During the afternoon, the baboons barking from the opposite side of the lagoon signify that there might be danger lurking, and the piercing call of a hyena is an indication that they are out there in the wild, where they belong.
Days are spent at your own pace; if you prefer to skip an activity to have a midday bubble bath, indulge in a snooze next to your own plunge pool, or sit out on the main deck watching the parade of wildlife from a safe distance, you are free to do so. One thing is certain – you will never go hungry at Sungani. Chef Quinton has mastered the art of creating the finest cuisine, from bush brunches to languid dinners on the deck. His High Tea is legendary, and Paul even sneaks a peek at what the freshly baked cake of the day is. Thank goodness I brought my stretchy pants as the chocolate cake is simply irresistible.
Sungani (pronounced suhn-gah-nee) means custodian or keeper in the blended Chichewa language and with their vested interest in the guest experience as well as conservation, the Davy family has certainly created a masterpiece of custodianship in South Luangwa.
** Views expressed are the author’s own.
How to Book with The Luxury Safari Company
Heléne’s flights were generously sponsored by The Luxury Safari Company. Founded by Rose Hipwood in 2010, her passion for Africa is clear in the seamless arrangement of bespoke, luxury safaris across Africa that are made special by the people involved, the unique locations of the lodges, and the meticulously executed nature of each trip. Clients of The Luxury Safari Company can expect personal 24-hour service safaris which take them into new territory with the right people at the right time and imaginative itineraries. To book, call +44 1666 880 111 or visit https://www.theluxurysafaricompany.com/